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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘museums’

Buildings in the landscape

Or, a trip to a museum

Only the other day, I wrote about heading out to visit a castle now that outdoor tourist attractions in Wales are starting to open up again. And now, along comes another post about it! This isn’t going to become a blog purely about days out I’ve taken, honest.

For the past few years, we’ve gone every spring to the museum at St Fagans, just west of Cardiff. If you’re from South Wales you will undoubtedly know of it, but I was always surprised, when we lived only just over the water in Bristol, how many English people don’t. Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru, or St Fagans National Museum of History,* is a museum of Welsh buildings and Welsh life on a grand scale. It was founded back in the 1940s, modelled on the Skansen museum in Stockholm: the grounds of an aristocratic stately home, St Fagans Castle, were slowly filled with exemplars of vernacular Welsh architecture, dismantled and re-erected.

The museum also has indoor galleries, in a huge 1960s-era brutalist building which—after a full refurbishment a few years ago—is a gorgeous example of the period with a wonderfully light and airy atrium space. Naturally, none of that is open at the moment. Nor are the interiors of the historic (or replica) buildings themselves. However, given that visitor numbers are being carefully limited, this does mean that we had a great opportunity to explore the grounds in detail. I should have brought my Proper Camera, because normally you don’t get to take photos with nobody else about quite as easily.

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

This is Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace, one of the museum’s highlights, showing the changes in a typical urban terrace over two hundred years. If nothing else, when you can go inside, it gives parents the opportunity to say “look, this is what houses looked like when I was small,” as their children gaze at a 1970s microwave, an early VCR and a model of a plate of fish fingers. The buildings themselves came from Merthyr Tydfil; railway nerds might remember that Rhyd-Y-Car Junction was the point where the Brecon & Merthyr Railway met the Great Western Railway just outside Merthyr station.

The gardens outside the terrace are similarly reconstructed and appropriate to the period of each cottage, with vegetable plots and outside toilets gaining sheds, pigeon lofts and air raid shelters, before being replaced with grass and a greenhouse.

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

You might remember, back in the mists of time a few paragraphs ago, I said that we always tend to go to St Fagans every spring. The reason for that is: being a museum of Welsh life, it has its own sheep farm—with added geese, ducks, cows and porkers too—and every year lambing season turns into a bit of an event, complete nowadays with the lambing sheds being broadcast online on the museum’s “LambCam”. By April though lambing season is pretty much over: we could see the lambs in the fields, but not many were left indoors. Still, this one seemed happy to see us.

Sheep

Other signs of spring were everywhere too: the ground carpeted with primroses and celandines, bluebells starting to appear in the woods, and the daffodils still in strong flower. I watched this bee flying round, scratching under grass and leaves apparently trying to dig a hole, before giving up and trying another spot.

Bee

I think she’s a queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), possibly looking for somewhere to start her nest.

* Translation note: the Welsh name doesn’t mean “Museum of History”, but it could mean “Welsh Folk Museum” or “Welsh People’s Museum”. The Welsh name has stayed the same over the years whilst the English one has changed a few times: road signs off the motorway direct you to the “Museum of Welsh Life”.

Dinosaurs

In which we explore past times

As soon as we got up on Sunday morning, The Child Who Likes Fairies made it very clear what she wanted to do. “Museum! Museum!”

So, we headed into Cardiff, amazed at how quiet the city was. No more than five or six cars parked in the park-and-ride by mid-morning. The museum was, indeed, a hit, particularly the “Evolution of Wales” gallery starting with geology and the Big Bang then running through dinosaurs before ending the a fake cave of Paleolithic animals. “Dinos!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies and “Daaaaaa!” shouted The Child Who Likes Animals, running back and forth from the dinosaurs to the prehistoric marine animals and through to the mammoth and bison, then back again backwards in time.

There are always so many little things I spot during the day and think: “I must put that into a diary blogpost,” but when it comes to the time for writing things down, I can’t recall what any of them are. What else? We left the museum and walked around the city for a while, popping in the art supplies shop and various phone shops, looking to replace the one that turned into a brick the other day. I notice the site of the Ian Allan transport bookshop in the arcades, closed down nearly a year ago because of a rent increase, is still empty and untenanted even though the landlords have split it into two shop units. After we got home, at bedtime, The Child Who Likes Fairies could still remember what we had done: “Museum! Walk! Dinos!”

Today, back at work, was one of those days full of meetings. The longest meeting, however, was in The Tower, a board room way up above the rest of the building on a little floor all of its own, with panoramic windows looking out over suburbs and fields towards the mountains. As the afternoon dragged on the sun came out, its angle highlighting all the slight ridge-and-furrow remnants of ancient agriculture in the fields of pasture alongside the motorway, and just as the skies all turned blue the tower rocked, slowly but firmly, in the wind.

When I got home, I asked The Child Who Likes Fairies what she’d done today. “Go museum see dinos!” was still the answer.

Out of joint

Or, things not fitting together

Saturday: we went out to the pub for lunch with friends. Our local pub does very nice pizza, and nice beer, and moreover whenever you go in there on a Saturday lunchtime it’s full of children running about the place going crazy, so our own children generally aren’t actually the worst-behaved in there. We caught up on all the local gossip, whilst the children threw toys at each other and other people’s children screamed and cried around us. At bedtime we asked The Child Who Likes Fairies what she had done today, and she replied “People. Food. Baby sad. Pizza! Daddy walk hop-up.”

Sunday: we walked around town with me constantly grumbling about feeling unwell. The charity bookshops had no good books that were affordable; everywhere we went in was so hot it made me feel sick; and in general it felt like the sort of day where things didn’t properly fit together. Still, we got a table in a café for lunch even though it was packet with students on Macbooks who had clearly arrived at opening time and settled themselves in their seats for the day, and one of the waiters was fantastic at bringing us free milk for the kids within seconds of sitting down, and generally stopping to entertain them whenever he was passing. Afterwards, as we walked into town, The Child Who Likes Fairies started shouting “MUSEUM!” as soon as we were within 400 yards of the city museum, so we had to let them run around the stuffed animal galleries for half an hour, fighting other children off the “pull this lever to see a dinosaur’s jaw move” exhibit, and pushing past goth teenagers to get to the best taxidermy.

Stencilled Out

In which we join the queue

It is, according to Venue magazine, possibly “the biggest cultural event of the decade”. With it only having a few weeks left to run, we finally made it along to the ever-busy Banksy retrospective at Bristol Museum.

I said “ever-busy”: half an hour before opening time, the queue already snaked back and forth along University Road. It took us, in total, about 100 minutes of standing and queuing before we reached the doors of the museum, including the half an hour before the doors opened. A man and a TV camera walked up and down the line, asking people if they thought that Banksy’s mysterious non-identity was important. I wondered if it might be the man himself asking; more likely to have been an interchangable local-news presenter, though. He didn’t really resemble the photos of Banksy that have already been published in the press.****

Coincidentally, the other day, Bristol City Council accidentally admitted that the mystery around Banksy’s identity is key to his financial success:

“[D]isclosure [of the name of Banksy’s limited company] may lead to the identity of the artist being at risk, which is crucial to his commercial interests”

Because – we assume – if you know that he’s a nice middle-class boy who went to Bristol Cathedral School, it does take something away from his “urban guerilla” image. But I’m not convinced that this matters too much. The important aspect of his “mysterious anonymity” is that it lets the viewer identify with him, whilst enjoying the glamour of the folklorique “cunning outlaw” figure. His work, too, is empty enough that you can subsititute your own feelings whenever you like.

You certainly get value for money at the Bristol show. Yes, I know it’s free; but I’ve been to free shows before and come away feeling short-changed. At Bristol, you first enter a room packed with work, before going on to two more Banksy-filled rooms. After that, there’s a whole museum to explore, with at least a couple of Banksy works or alterations in every room. It turns the building into a sort of game, a trick puzzle, which doesn’t really do the collections justice. I saw some people who were slightly confused by the rare Pokemon cards in the Oriental Dragons display, thinking they must have been a Banksy addition. No, they’re a proper museum exhibit. The items Banksy was responsible for seemed to have been chosen to appeal to teenage boys, too: a dildo in the geology section, a bong amongst the porcelain. Hanging Banksy’s paintings – coyly attributed to “Local Artist” – alongside the museum’s permanent collection also doesn’t do his painting skills any favours: His paintings might still be much better than I could manage myself, but you notice the crudeness of his brushwork much more when you have better work to compare it to.

It’s ironic that it was the Daily Mail who first printed Banksy’s alleged real name, because, from his work, he strikes me as the sort of person who claims to be radical and shocking, whilst at heart being inherently conservative, supporting rather than challenging existing prejudice. Take, for example, a classical landscape painting with burnt-out car added in the foreground.* Its title? Landscape near Hartcliffe. A title to make the locals snigger – at any rate, the well-off locals who can look at the painting, laugh to themselves, and feel pleased that they are rich enough to live in a nice part of the city. Similarly, his paintings and statues of riot police behaving unexpectedly do their best to reinforce the stereotype of police being brutal, inhuman and mechanistic. Treating them with humanity and respect would, to be honest, be a far more radical and challenging standpoint.** Most of the “great ideas” in his works aren’t that shocking or subversive at all; the sort of ideas that a GCSE art student might consider shocking and subversive, possibly. A painting of the House Of Commons Chamber, the chamber and press gallery both full of chimps, for example, is hardly a very deep and complex idea.***

There is, I have to admit, one very very good thing about the whole exhibition. Two, really. It got people to look at some art, and it got people into the building. Most of the locals who were there, I’m sure, would never normally dream of going into their city’s museum, despite the quality of its collections. Making them aware it’s there has to be a good thing; making everyone want to travel round every room of the place is definitely a good thing, because it’s far too easy, with any museum, just to visit the one or two rooms you want to and ignore the rest. It’s a shame that this led to people treating the place like an Easter egg hunt, though; and a shame that the art they came to see wasn’t better art when they got there.

* I suspect – with no evidence other than a good close look – that the majority of the scene is a printed reproduction, with just the car overpainted.

** It’s also easy to nitpick at the many small, obvious mistakes. For example, that famous photograph of I K Brunel, exhausted and close to death, in front of the launching chains of his last great steamship, with a Banksy-added sign for “rail replacement bus services”. For one thing, if you want to make a comment about the railways, why not alter a more railway-related picture? For another, Brunel’s own railway locomotives were notoriously weak and unreliable, so much so that they were unable to maintain any sort of train service. I’m sure Banksy didn’t actually know that when making his picture.

*** I found it hard to decide how much of that painting’s shallowness was accidental. Was it deliberate that both the politicians and the journalists were turned into chimps, or was that just a piece of lazy and unresearched painting?

**** No, it was definitely BBC presenter Jon Kay.

On Display

Or, the BBC are exhibitionists

One thing new about Saturday’s trip to the NMPFT: the museum now houses Bradford’s local BBC radio studio, usually used to broadcast BBC Radio Leeds. The studio and offices are in one of the ordinary museum galleries, with large windows, presumably very thoroughly sound-proofed, to make sure everybody gets a good look at the presenter at work.

Now, the BBC seems to have made a habit of doing this in the past few years. Their studio here moved from a cupboard in one of the council offices, to a shop by the bus station; again with big windows so passers-by can watch. The same has happened to their studios in Hull. Somewhere at the BBC, a few years ago, someone made a note: “all radio studios to have big windows for random passers-by”, and they’ve stuck to it ever since.

Thinking about it, I’m wondering where they came across the idea. Back in the 1990s, I rather liked the TV series Northern Exposure, which, as it happens, featured a local radio station which broadcast from an ordinary town shop, the DJ sitting by the window watching everyone pass by as he talked. Maybe, someone at the BBC is a Northern Exposure fan too, and ever since then has been doing their best to put the BBC’s radio presenters into public view.

We are all works of art

In which we visit a street fashion exhibition

Yesterday: a day out, to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television with The Parents. We’d not visited almost since it first opened. Most of it has been completely rebuilt since, but the gallery on the mechanics of TV is still unchanged from 20 years ago, back when blue screen Chroma-Key was an amazing feat of modern technology. The exhibits have all been re-captioned by Tim Hunkin, but even he only gave it a 2/5 score.

We didn’t go to see anything specific, but we did look around the current exhibition: Fashination, about the grey area between fashion and art. It seemed a rather strange choice for the NMPFT to put on. I suppose the connection was the importance of fashion photography, which was touched on in one part of the exhibition; but it really would have fitted better at somewhere like the V&A. The most interesting section – given more prominance on the website – was the “street fashion” polaroids of random people and their clothes. As someone who wishes they could just wake up, throw on something random and still look great, I love the idea that fashion is not the province of Great Artists whose work is more suited to a catwalk or photograph than to everyday life. Which seems to be entirely the opposite opinion to everything else in the show.